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Exactly what was Charles Ponzi selling in Vermont?

Apr 22, 2021

Another tale from More than a Market research

Synonymous with Bernard Madoff’s name is “Ponzi schemer.” With Madoff’s recent death in prison, where he had served eleven of a 150-year sentence for fraud, it’s interesting to note a connection between Vermont and Charles Ponzi, an Italian immigrant who perfected the “get rich quick” scheme in the early twentieth century. In 1920, Italian-American grocer Alfred Perrotta of Burlington, Vermont, claimed there was such a connection.

Alfred Perrotta was a local contractor and, for a time, operator of a grocery store at 16 Cherry Street in Burlington. In a story in the Burlington Daily News (August 13, 1920) he said that he became acquainted with Charles Ponzi around 1915, when Ponzi visited his store and other local groceries as a salesman for Muselino and Berger Italian Importing Grocery Company in Boston. When Ponzi was arrested on eighty-six counts of mail fraud in 1920, Perrotta told the reporter that he recognized him from photos published in hundreds of newspapers nationwide.

Ponzi

According to a Smithsonian Magazine story, “In Ponzi We Trust” (December 1998), Charles Ponzi immigrated to Boston from Italy in 1903. He held a variety of small jobs along the East Coast for years. He returned to Boston in 1917 after responding to a newspaper ad for a clerk.

In 1920, he hit upon a “get rich quick” scheme. He raked in about $15 million in eight months by persuading thousands of Bostonians to invest today, so to speak, to make huge profits tomorrow. Ponzi’s con was to sell large quantities of prepayment coupons for postage from countries with weaker economies than those in the U.S., which he promised to redeem for U.S. stamps, resulting in significant profits to investors. When it became clear that this was unsustainable, an audit of his business turned up just $61 worth of the coupons. Ponzi did not invent this scheme, but he brought it to such remarkable new levels of profit that the swindle carries his name.

Perrota & Izzo market ad
Advertisement from Burlington Free Press, October 14, 1922

Alfred Perrotta has a familial link to Izzo’s Market (1922-1974), one of the markets featured in Historic New England’s project More than a Market: Finding Community in Local Markets of Burlington and Winooski, Vermont. When Louis and Concetta Izzo arrived in Burlington in 1922 from Italy, they went into business with her brother Alfred Perrotta as C. Perrotta & Izzo Meat & Provisions at 77 Pearl Street. Eventually Louis Izzo assumed sole ownership of the market, which carried what were then considered specialty Italian products—olive oil, salami, mortadella, provolone, ricotta cheese—delivered weekly by a Boston distributor.

Local and regional distributors were an essential part of the network that supplied general and specialty items to local markets. It’s intriguing to imagine that Charles Ponzi might have been part of this network in early twentieth-century Vermont.

Historic New England in Vermont

More Than A Market is the third Vermont project in Historic New England’s Everyone’s History series, which partners with communities and organizations to collect and share stories of life in New England from the seventeenth century to today. These partnerships have resulted in exhibitions, films, walking tours, publications, and programs. Other Vermont projects include the films Rooted: Cultivating Community in the Vermont Grange (2018) and Back to School: Lessons from Norwich’s One-Room Schoolhouses (2015).

Gail Rosenberg is a historian and researcher and co-founder of the Burlington Edible History Tour.